Tim Maddams is a private chef, cookery teacher, presenter and author. In a three-part series, he shares his tips on foraging for wild greens along with recipe ideas to make the most of them. This month: sea beet, wild garlic, and navel pennywort
As I sit here writing this in east Devon, it’s snowing outside. It was -4C this morning. But it’s spring; it’s definitely spring and I will not be taking any fire over that. The simple, effortless proof is that I have just harvested a big basket of wild garlic. Wild garlic equals spring.
Many people look at foraging as being a little ‘weirdy-beardy’, and I get it. But from a cook’s point of view, the wild larder is ignored only by the dullest of dullards. There are some great practical reasons to get foraging as well, not least the way that the emergence of the spring greens seems to coincide almost exactly with the ‘hungry gap’ in the market garden; just as the roots are finished and the winter greens have all but gone to pot, weeks before the real spring veg get going, the hedgerows, riverbanks and woodland edges offer up the first blast of chlorophyll-loaded joy.
For those of you who are arm chair foragers, Borough Market will provide the leg work for you and save on scrabbling through the undergrowth—Noel Fitzjohn of Fitz Fine Foods is always one of the first to get his hands on the likes of wild garlic and three-cornered leek, while Paul Wheeler can order in just about anything.
For those of you that want to get out and give foraging a go yourself, there are various laws to look out for and of course, it’s imperative never to eat anything you haven’t 100 per cent positively identified—many people who would never consider nibbling on a wild mushroom happily taste plants that they are still trying to identify. There are plenty of seriously poisonous plants out there, so be careful.
Make sure you have permission to harvest, if you’re not on public land, and take care not to up root the plant. Do not pick endangered plants and follow the code of good foraging principles, as laid out by the Association of Foragers.
Sea beet is the wild ancestor of spinach, beetroot, chard and most other plants of that ilk. Because it has to survive in the harsh, salty environment of the windswept shore, harbour wall, or beach car park, it has these wonderfully succulent leaves that must contain some sort of natural anti-freeze, as this plant is happy to linger in a sort of stasis, fully foliaged until it begins growing in earnest in the spring. For the greedy cook, that means this wonderfully salty, fresh-yet-earthy, robust leafy green is there for the taking right from the word go—that has to be better than gritty, miniature, imported spinach leaves in a plastic bag, right?
In terms of identification, it really couldn’t be easier. It looks like thick-leaved, slightly waxy spinach and the leaves are the same shape. The plant grows out from a large woody root, which is often—though not always—visible above ground. Pick the leaves only about a third of the way down the stem—I tend to use a knife or pair of scissors, as the stems are rather fibrous.
You can cook this just like spinach but unless you blanch it in water that has some bicarinate of soda in it, it will lose its wonderful green colour—though this isn’t really a problem, it will still taste the same. I love this plant dearly, partly because it’s such a quick win, but also because it keeps so well: washed and popped in a tub in a cold fridge it will stay fresh for a week or even two, though it will lose some of its sweetness.
The best thing about this leafy treat, though, is its versatility. I particularly like it in a frittata: just get some chopped garlic and onion sizzling in a pan with a few chilli flakes and a little smoked paprika, add your sea beet and wilt it down, then add eggs and bake until set. Easy. Or, boil some pasta, sweat some garlic and steam open some cockles in a little cider. Add cream, turn up the heat to reduce the mixture, then add the pasta. Season very well, remembering the salty contributions from the bivalves and the beet. Enjoy.
I love this plant. It’s the perfect seasonal ingredient. Abundant. Exciting. Versatile. And as soon as you get the tiniest bit fatigued by its presence in your culinary equations, it finishes.
Foraging wild garlic leaf is so easy: just follow your nose! You will very likely smell it before you see it, particularly on a sunny afternoon. Look for it round woodland edges and roadside verges. Potentially problematic imposters are lily of the valley, though the leaves are really not that similar and tend to come out a lot later—importantly, they do not smell of garlic—and lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum).
The only poisoning I have ever heard of was an unfortunate case where someone harvested a lot of lords and ladies in with the garlic, and then made a soup which made them rather unwell. This is about the only possible way of poisoning yourself seriously with lords and ladies, as it is so retched on the palate you would never consume it any other way.
I tend to stop picking wild garlic once the flowers really kick off, as the leaves start to lose their sweetness and toughen up considerably. The flowers and unopened flower heads also make great additions to the larder—pickling the flower heads or indeed the un-opened seed pods make great little flavour bombs to store away for later—but it is the leaves I love the most.
A bright green bowl of wild garlic soup is a joy to behold and an exquisite delight to eat, particularly with the addition of a poached egg and some good bread. To make it is as easy as pie. If you have ever made a watercress soup—or any other green soup, for that matter—it’s a doddle. Wild garlic will find its own way into your food: cockles and wild garlic butter, wild garlic and mozzarella pizza, even a handful of the well-washed leaves thrown into a pan of bacon and eggs will enrich your fry up experience invaluably.
If I may, I’d like to show you a little plant that most people will have seen, even if they don’t know it—like most plants once you do, you’ll spot it here, there and everywhere. The particular oddity I’d like to encourage you to try today is navel pennywort—meaning ‘pretty tummy button’ or some such—sometimes known as wall pennywort, as it has a liking for growing on rocky walls and ditch edges.
Found it yet? Round, rosette-like leaves on a central stem, succulent and fleshy of leaf and growing in rocky conditions? Got it? Good, now, what to do with it. It is not, I have to say, the most exciting plant to forage: it won’t thrill you like wild garlic or spur you to greater effort like wild cherries, but it will make a fine alternative to crisp lettuce and a handy addition to salads and sandwiches—of which, a good goose egg mayo on brown has to be at the top of the list.
It’s also quite a good garnish, chopped and added to a potato salad, or simply a few leaves scattered about a serving of smoked fish and lentils. Mark Hix once served me a pheasant breast dish with raw pennywort and winter chanterelles dressed in a vinaigrette, which was very tasty indeed.
Pennywort goes rather bitter at the end of summer, but is available most of the year—I think it is at its best in early spring, but you can judge that for yourself.